Where would the Rangers be with average goaltending?
It is a question that Rangers fans haven’t had to ponder in a decade because of the presence of the future Hall of Famer who has patrolled the blue paint since the 2005-06 season. Tuesday night was an outstanding reminder of what life is like when your best player is your goaltender. Henrik Lundqvist continued his remarkable elimination-game play and kept the Blueshirts’ cup dreams alive with a 7-3 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.
From the exterior, a 7-3 score with a .923 save percentage doesn’t project dominance, but sometimes the boxscore doesn’t provide us with the proper context.
While I believe shot metrics provide us with some game context, I like to run those results against my expected goal generator. It essentially removes shooting/goaltending luck to see who is controlling the flow of play based on shot location and pre-shot movement. Tuesday night was the Henrik Lundqvist show. The Rangers led 2-1 through two periods, but in reality they should have been down by two. The reason they weren’t trailing was opportunistic shooting and a dominant performance by the King.
The Lightning held a 7-2 green-shot advantage after two, but the Rangers capitalized on both of their green opportunities. The Lightning were assaulting Lundqvist with quality and quantity, but couldn’t capitalize at even strength. While the Rangers were defying the odds because of their goaltender, the Lightning seemed destined to breakthrough if they continued their assault. As the Bolts continued to push the play, they began taking some more risks and the Rangers began to get odd-man opportunities. Nine of the Rangers’ next 13 shots were of the green variety, with four of them finding the back of the net. After all that, the stage was set for Game 7 at The Garden.
The Rangers are still a very strong team, but they haven’t fully broken free of their reliance on Lundqvist. It is a major luxury to not have to control the play to win playoff games, and, with the mediocre goaltenders remaining in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Rangers just need to maintain close to a 50/50 split in play to truly have a chance to become champions.
While inconsistent through the first three rounds, the Rangers have managed to provide Lundqvist with this opportunity. They were too much for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round, but they needed typical Lundqvist brilliance in the second round against the Capitals. Braden Holtby was matching him shot for shot through the first five games. But Holtby couldn’t sustain Lundqvist’s greatness late in the series and the Rangers survived in a last-shot-wins Game 7.
While overall the Rangers have managed to maintain an even flow of play versus Tampa Bay, the peaks and valleys have been extreme. But here we are again with Lundqvist having an opportunity to flex his Game 7 elimination muscles.
The Rangers have some emerging young talent and a strong core, but tonight’s Game 7 is still a must win for this franchise. While Lundqvist is performing at the peak of his ablities, he’s doing so with the benefit of two months of forced rest due to injury. Cam Talbot stepped in admirably and bridged the injury gap, allowing the Rangers to capture the Presidents’ Trophy. With a lightened load because of the limited regular season wear and tear, Lundqvist has been spectacular these playoffs, registering a +.020 above expected SV%.
The benefit of having a trump card like Lundqvist is he gives you a chance when another goaltender goes on a dominant run. While the Rangers outplayed and outchanced the Penguins, they struggled to score against Holtby and still managed to advance despite the fact that Capitals controlled the play in Games 6 and 7. While he has struggled against the Lightning at times, the Rangers have managed to return the favor in the Eastern Conference Final with significant offensive support.
This is the fourth straight postseason of greatness for him and the Rangers need to take advantage of it. As long as the Rangers’ success is directly tied to Lundqvist’s greatness, his age has to become a concern. How much longer can he sustain these spectacular playoff runs? He is approaching an age where goaltenders begin to decline and his reliance on playing at extreme depths so that he can read plays longer will make him vulnerable to any reflex loss as he ages. Lundqvist’s reads are tied to his athleticism, so he isn’t immune to the aging process.
I think Rangers management knows this and it is one of the driving forces behind going all in this season. Their time is now. A rested dominant goaltender and the best supporting cast of his career.
I have been watching these playoffs with a certain urgency because I view Lundqvist as a generational talent and I don’t want to live in a world where Chris Osgood, Antti Niemi and Marc-Andre Fleury own Stanley Cup rings and the King does not.
Lundqvist is the best goaltender remaining in the playoffs by a considerable margin and if Lundqvist can continue his Game 7 magic against the Lightning, the Conn Smythe Award is his to lose.